Saturday, September 02, 2006

Beslan: second anniversary

It's the second anniversary of one of the worst terrorist acts in history, the Beslan kidnapping and massacre.

I wrote this post one year ago, on the first anniversary. Nothing much has changed since then. The sorrow of the parents who lost children has probably not eased much, although it has gotten a little older.

The main thrust of most articles written on this second anniversary (and there are relatively few, especially outside of Russia) focus on the rage the families feel at the Russian authorities for what is perceived as their negligent handling of the incident. This feeling has been fueled by a new and controversial report by a member of the State Duma, Yury Savelyev, who disagrees with the official findings that the first shots fired in the final confrontation were set off by the terrorists. He writes that the initial blasts came from the Russian authorities.

It's impossible from this vantage point to even begin to evaluate who might be correct. Some accuse Savelyev of distorting the facts for political gain (sound familiar)? Whatever the truth might be, his report--and other articles about the anniversary--are definitely part of a trend that I've noticed before under similar circumstances, which is this: when terrorists attack, people often seem to direct the bulk of their anger at their own authorities, blaming them for failure to protect.

In this case, my guess is that the Russian authorities are indeed guilty of some sort of contributory negligence. Perhaps they didn't fire at the school first, despite what Savelyev has said. But they may indeed have messed up in some way or other, perhaps even in several different ways.

But any negligence on their part is contributory only. There's no question this was a terrorist attack of extreme and unusual coldbloodedness. The guilt and responsibility lie squarely with the terrorists themselves. They were the ones who chose a target with a predominance of children among the victims, they were the ones who subjected those children and others to great suffering both before and during their deaths, and they were the ones who had a chance to view that suffering and yet still did not relent (even shooting some of the children in the back as they fled the final conflagration).

But most of those terrorists--except one--are now dead. They are out of reach; the Russian authorities are not. It's a normal human reaction to blame those close at hand, especially if they are perceived as having had a duty to protect and as having failed that duty.

But history only plays once; we don't have an alternate universe in which the Russian military and police get another opportunity to do something different, something more effective, something that preserved more lives. Was there any chance of a more successful outcome, given the ferocity of the hostage-takers? I personally don't think so, but I have no way of knowing. Neither does anyone else.

Many people in Russia criticize the fact that the terrorists were not stopped somewhere on the way to their target. This is similar to criticisms mounted in this country towards the CIA and FBI for not noticing and stopping the 9/11 hijackers long before they did their nefarious business.

A group calling itself the Mothers of Beslan speaks out:

"We are convinced that the difficult last two years have not brought us to the truth about the Beslan tragedy but to the covering up of the truth."

That lack of trust means that even the trial of Nurpashi Kulayev, who officials say was the only hostage-taker not to die during the fighting, failed to bring closure to victims and their relatives.

"One person cannot be responsible for the deaths of more than 300. Those who allowed the fighters to travel unhindered to Beslan along federal roads should sit in his place. And those who allowed the bloody ending," said Valery Karlov, who lost his father.

That last quote says a great deal. There is only one person left alive from among the perpetrators, hardly enough to bear the brunt of all the rage and grief the families--and much of Russia--still feel. The authorities, however, are alive and kicking, as well as numerous.

And no doubt there are plenty of reasons to blame them, as their response was far from perfect, as are most human responses to an unforeseen and unprecedented crisis. The basic human need to believe that, if the police and military and government had done their job correctly, no one need have died, is compounded by a traditional (and probably justified) distrust of the Russian government. Any official report from that source is already seen as a whitewash.

But we can all agree that Beslan was one of the saddest episodes yet in the annals of terrorism, and that many of the rescuers distinguished themselves that day. Here are some poignant photos, for remembrance (I have omitted any photos of the dead out of respect, although there are many at the website from which I got these pictures):

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